On May 9th, 2022, the citizens of the Philippines will be in long lines outside polling places, waiting for their chance to exercise their democratic right to choose who will lead the country. After over two years of pandemic lockdowns and mismanagement of COVID-19 resources, voters may opt for a change in direction. Such change, however, may not be present on the ballot next year.
For centuries, the Philippines has been dominated by families of politicians who control their respective home regions and a majority of national positions. When looking at recent dynamics within the Philippine Congress, it’s clear this pattern is alive and well. In a 2015 survey, 75% of legislators in the Philippine Congress were found to be from political dynasties.
This long-standing trend has likely caused rampant corruption within the government and an uneven political arena that favours the country’s elite. Yet, despite the consequences, the majority of Filipinos repeatedly vote to keep the political dynasties in power with every election cycle. As a result, the government consists of individuals with private ambitions that continually conflict with their public service.
Political Dynasty: A Well-Practiced Illegal Act in the Philippines
As defined in a 2019 working paper compiled by professors from Ateneo de Manila University, a political dynasty exists when “an elected official … has relatives in elected office.” There are two specific types of political dynasties. A “thin dynasty” is when relatives succeed each other back-to-back, while a “fat dynasty” is when several family members hold political office at the same time.
Regardless of how a political dynasty is categorized, such an oligarchical method of holding power is supposed to be illegal under Philippine law. After the 14-year dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1986, the succeeding president, Corazon Aquino, drafted and ratified a new constitution that formed a republican system of government guided by democratic principles. One of those principles was to prevent any person or group from politically dominating certain regions or the nation overall. As stated in the 1987 Philippine Constitution under Article 2 Section 26, “the State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”
This section within the Constitution is a commendable attempt at creating a level playing field in Filipino politics. Yet, there is a clear loophole that weakens the provision. In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Mr. Rejene Lakibul, an assistant instructor and chairperson of the University of San Carlos’ Department of Political Science (Cebu, Philippines), explained further how such loopholes manifest. “I’d like to believe that [the provision on political dynasties] is not really effective,” noted Mr. Rejene Lakibul. He pointed out that a specific phrase within the Constitution, “as may be defined by law,” allows families to continue occupying several government positions as there are no enacted laws that outline any regulation regarding political dynasties. “The Constitution is telling us that we have to come up with an enabling law to clarify, to specify, [and] to articulate clearly what a political dynasty is,” Mr. Lakibul said.
He further mentioned that several bills that attempt to tackle the loophole within the constitution have been introduced in Congress, which failed to either be formally debated or passed. He proposed that these failures are a result of most of Congress being in political dynasties: “The very people discussing [these bills] and the very people who are supposed to legislate them into law are the very people who will be affected by these bills.”
Creating an Unfair Electoral Playing Field
The presence of dynasties has substantial implications for Filipino politics. Most notably, political dynasties prevent the ideal scenario whereby government officials are chosen based on their insight and talent. These families’ presence means that individuals without the same kind of support or clout will have a lesser chance of gaining positions of power. “[Newcomers] will be shielded out of that opportunity because there is already a competitive advantage on the part of the political dynasty,” Mr. Lakibul stated. “They already have the family name; they already have the voter base; they already have the network. So this is going to be a disadvantage for those who have the intention to lead and have the capability to pursue a leadership career.”
“It seems as though [political dynasties] are trying to encourage a concentrated, consolidated control of power to the point where it minimizes chances for others,” he added.
Ultimately, the longer a political dynasty holds power, the more likely voters will believe that these families are the only options available. In Mr. Lakibul’s words, “from a psychological point of view, if you are presenting yourself similarly over and over again, there comes a time when people’s mindset becomes classically conditioned by the dynasty.”
This ‘classic conditioning’ of the mindset, Mr. Lakibul further stated, is at play when voters have to choose between supporting the establishment clan or choosing an alternative. The latter choice might be a reset on the progress made by the ruling family. The people, he then suggested, are cautious and trying to avoid the risk of “going back to square one.” Such thinking contributes to the long-standing power of political dynasties.
Small Yet Significant Reforms
Despite the seemingly impossible hurdle to curb the power of political dynasties, recent developments in local politics have shown that reform is possible. One of the best examples of such reforms is in local youth councils in the country.
Every barangay (the smallest administrative unit in the Philippines) includes a Sanggunian Kabataan (SK), a youth council. These youth councils are meant to be an opportunity for the youth to have a voice in government. This goal, however, has been superseded by its ineffectiveness and the corrupt system it operates under. Congress responded to the concerns by passing legislation that attempted to “weed out partisan politics and the inherent weaknesses that characterized the old SK system,” as stated by one of the SK bill’s lawmakers.
One of the provisions enacted by the Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act of 2016 — the legislation that included reform regarding SK — was aimed to prevent the entrenchment of political dynasties in the council. Council members of an SK cannot have any relatives “within the second affinity or consanguinity” (biological siblings, parents and grandparents, in-law siblings, partners, and grandparents) who are also elected officials in the same local area. “I think that is a milestone,” Mr. Lakibul remarked, acknowledging that this development is a sign that politicians are willing to regulate political dynasties and their prevalence in some instances.
The reality of Filipino politics, however, is not lost on Mr. Lakibul: “If you want to ask me about the possibility of an anti-political dynasty law at a congressional level, it will take a lot of mountains for us to climb and a lot of seas to swim.” Such a predicament is grounds for structural reforms that dismantle the excess influence of these power-hungry families. By ensuring fair elections, those who will lead the country will be chosen not by the last name printed on their birth certificate, but by the merit of their capabilities and platforms that could transform the nation for the greater good.
Disclaimer: The statements made by Mr. Rejene Lakibul are solely representative of his own views and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the University of San Carlos’ Political Science Department (including its faculty and students), and/or the University of San Carlos.